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Saskatoon Blues Festival bringing great music to town: blues musicians Rita Chiarelli and Tracy Nelson talk shop

By in Culture
Rita Chiarelli visits with the inmates of Angola Prison.
For a relatively new attraction, the Saskatoon Blues Festival is drawing some pretty big names.

From Feb. 23 to 26, the Saskatoon Blues Society brought more than a dozen remarkable blues artists to the Odeon Events Centre and the Hilton Garden Inn to provide some soulful entertainment to the masses.

Rita Chiarelli, one of Canada’s most poignant blues artists, performed at the Hilton Garden on Feb. 24, and has been dubbed the “Goddess of the Blues.” Her powerful, three-octave voice rings out with soul and passion.

Chiarelli talked about her most recent project, Music from the Big House, a documentary film that took her to the Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison. The prison is infamous for being one of the most corrupt and violent prisons in America — and also the birthplace of the blues.

“The unique thing about this prison is that there was incredible music coming from there,” Chiarelli said, “and I performed there — not for the inmates, but with them, which is something that has never been done.”

The film is a look into the prison-musical subculture rarely explored since Johnny Cash’s prison performances in the 1960s, and shows the unlikely artistic bonds between disparate people.

The documentary had its first screening in Saskatoon to a packed Roxy Theatre on Feb. 22. Chiarelli will be touring Canada, the United States and Europe to promote the film.

“In March, we’ll be playing in Zurich, Vienna and London,” Chiarelli said. “It’s very exciting.”

Headlining at the Odeon’s Electric Room was blues artist Tracy Nelson, a commanding vocalist and two-time nominee for the 2012 Blues Music Awards.

During the late ’60s Nelson dropped out of college and moved to San Francisco to pursue her music career. Luckily, the music industry of the Joplin Era was booming and had a lot of space for emerging artists like Nelson.

“Bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane would headline at the Fillmore, and then other [lesser known] bands would be brought in to open for them,” Nelson said. “And the bands who played onstage at the Fillmore would have [recognition] in the industry.”

It was during this time that Nelson got her first big break almost immediately after moving to the Bay Area.

Nelson’s next project takes her to New York in April, where she will collaborate with Dorothy Morrison, Annie Sampson, Angela Strehli and Deanna Bogart — honoured blues musicians within the industry. Their band, the Blues Broads, will perform this summer in Edmonton at the city’s blues festival.

“It’s sort of a gospel-y thing and I’m loving that,” Nelson said.

While it’s easy to ignore music that doesn’t get the Top 40 treatment, there are plenty of deserving artists worth recognizing, and the Saskatoon Blues Society will continue to highlight these musicians and bring their great musical acts to town.

Photo: Supplied

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